The African Union: towards a new architecture for peace, democracy and developement?

Gunnar M. Sørbø, Director, and Elling Tjønneland, Senior Researcher, Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Bergen

Africa has made considerable progress in addressing peace and development issues in the last decade. There are still multiple and serious conflicts on the continent, but almost all wars that were raging during the 1990s (Angola, DRC, Algeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda) have been stopped and there are persistent wars only in Sudan and Somalia. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) has been replaced by the African Union (AU). Human security – as opposed to state security – and the right to intervene – as opposed to non-interference – have been placed on the agenda and a number of initiatives have been made to develop pan-African and regional guidelines for peacemaking and democratisation. [1]

The AU was inaugurated in 2002 as the continent’s paramount pan-African institution. It replaced OAU which was established in 1963 and which gradually had become less effective, struggling with limited resources and abilities to tackle the post-Cold War challenges and with a predominantly state-centred approach to security with limited attention to domestic conditions and conflicts.

The main issues that have dominated AU’s agenda are the construction of a peace and security architecture; the governance and development agenda; and the role of the Regional Economic Communities (RECs).

The Peace and Security Architecture

The AU has spearheaded efforts to build and operationalise a security architecture for Africa. Compared to its predecessor, the AU has adopted a more proactive and interventionist stance to security challenges. Four situations are identified which warrant AU intervention in the internal affairs of its members:

  • Genocide
  • Gross violation of human rights
  • Instability in a country that threatens regional stability; and
  • Unconstitutional changes of government

This is a radical departure from the OAU’s four-decade-long fixation with non-intervention and non-interference. Two initiatives have dominated AU’s efforts: The Peace and Security Council (PSC) and the African Standby Force (ASF). The PSC was set up in 2004. It has 15 member countries and is charged with making decisions on conflict prevention and peacebuilding. It has five renewable 3-year seats (currently held by Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria, Ethiopia and Gabon) along with 10 non-renewable 2-year seats.  The PSC has established a Panel of the Wise (in 2007) to assist in AU’s mediation efforts, an early warning system, and a military staff committee to provide PSC with advice on deployment and security arrangements.

The main project of the PSC has been the efforts to establish the ASF – envisaged as a force able to be deployed within 30-90 days and to be established by 2010. It is built around five brigade-size standby forces – one from each of AU’s official regions – and will undertake peace support missions on the continent. Planning and preparations are advanced and a detailed road map has been developed. The AU promotes an integrated stand-by system involving logistics, common doctrines, and unified training standards. Each sub-region is to establish its brigade headquarters. The AU force is expected to be linked to the UN system.

Governance and development

The AU and related pan-African initiatives have also, in a departure from the OAU approach, attempted to address governance issue and emphasised its linkages to socio-economic development. This has been most strongly illustrated through the NEPAD framework. Under NEPAD auspices, an African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) has been launched as a monitoring and assessment instrument for compliance of African governments with the norms of governance and human rights articulated in the AU constitution. Currently some 26 countries have signed up to this voluntary mechanism which seeks to raise the standards of governance and economic management.

The establishment of the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2006 was another symbolic milestone in the efforts to improve Africa’s human rights record. It builds on the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the 1987 African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and seeks to complement the protective mandate of the Charter and Commission. The African Court will render binding decisions – not just recommendations – and seeks to obtain the compliance of states with the assistance of the AU Executive Council in the enforcement of its decisions. The AU has also decided to establish an African Court of Justice. While the relations between these two courts will still require some clarification, the latter is intended to function more as a treaty body.

The AU has recognised the important role of popular participation and engagement with civil society. A Pan-African Parliament (PAP) has been set up composed of MPs from parliaments in member countries (including MPs from both ruling parties and opposition parties). AU’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC) has also been established in an effort to consult with civil society organisations and NGOs. Both these institutions are advisory bodies.

Regional Economic Communities (RECs)

These initiatives, institutions and mechanism are complemented at the sub-regional level by the Regional Economic Communities (RECs). Many of them have similar institutions – such as security councils, parliaments and courts - in place to advance co-operation and promote governance and conflict management. These RECs are also – since the 1991 Lagos Plan of Action - envisaged as the building blocks and foundations of the African Union and is intended to take the lead in implementing AU programmes.

The AU has grouped Africa into five different regions (North, West, East, Central and Southern) but has officially recognized 8 RECs – The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA); the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD); the East African Community (EAC); the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS); the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS); the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD); the Southern African Development Community (SADC); and the Arab Magreb Union (UMA). There is also a range of other regional political and economic co-operation groupings (e.g., the Southern African Customs Union).

This has led to a veritable spaghetti-bowl of regional groupings. In some areas, overlapping membership has become a major obstacle for advancing regional co-operation and AU objectives. This is most evident in the area of economic integration – it is e.g. not possible to be a member of more than one customs union. But also in the area of security, obstacles have emerged with many member countries not being ready to choose which stand by force they should contribute to. Angola and DR Congo, for example, have both made commitments to two regional standby forces – both in ECCAS and in SADC – and Tanzania prefers to contribute to SADC rather than to the EAC. In addition, there are heavy financial and administrative burdens for most AU member states in being member of several sub-regional groupings.

AU has attempted to facilitate a rationalisation and division of labour between the various RECs. Several draft MoUs have been developed but no conclusion has yet been reached.

The challenge of implementation

The AU objectives, the mechanisms established and policies developed are in many ways remarkable. Compared to similar efforts in other regions – Latin America, Asia or the Middle East – Africa is far more developed in terms of security co-operation. While there are shortcomings also at the level of objectives and policies (such as insufficient focus on peacebuilding after the end of war), Africa and its organisations appear advanced. Commitments to regionalism are also probably stronger in Africa than in most other regions. [2]

However, the shortcomings become evident when we turn to implementation and delivery. Many of the regional organisations are weak or even empty shells. Historically most efforts to establish regional co-operation in Africa have failed, development has been haphazard, and a pattern of intervention by individual states or ad hoc coalitions has been established. Most of the “civil wars” that have plagued African states since independence have in fact involved other states.

There are several reasons for this. One is the weak institutional capacity of both AU institutions and the RECs. Shortage of qualified staff and lack of funding are major obstacles. Unresolved tensions between the RECs and the AU (including overlapping memberships) and between the UN and African organisations, add to the hurdles. Above all, however, these shortcomings are linked to relations between member states and the regional institutions. Africa’s ruling regimes are just as wedded to the concept of national sovereignty as regimes elsewhere. The regional institutions are as strong and effective as their members want them to be.

Developments over the past years, however, have given rise to some optimism regarding the effectiveness of African regional organisations in addressing security and governance issues. This has been linked also to the democratisation efforts in member states throughout the continent which have made accountability functions and multiparty elections more important. Regional powers – especially Nigeria and South Africa – have also become important champions for change and key drivers of efforts to make institutions work.

Darfur: test case for AU’s new ambitions?

The AU is making progress also in implementation. The AU is now – almost as a matter of routine – quick in condemning unconstitutional changes in member countries. It has, therefore, become increasingly difficult for governing elites or potential coup makers not to abide by elections. In a few cases, the AU has also intervened to enforce a solution to a political crisis – most notably in early 2008 when the AU authorised a military invasion of Somalia to restore law and order.  However, it has generally been difficult for the AU to intervene and facilitate peacebuilding in complex and challenging situations. The case of Zimbabwe may illustrate this. The case of Darfur (Sudan) may however still be the biggest test case for the AU’s new peacekeeping ambitions.

In a sense, the AU intervention in Darfur (2004) occurred by default because of the lack of political peacekeeping entry by the UN. One of the basic problems with the conflict in Darfur has been that the warring parties do not agree on the form or purpose of outside intervention.

The African Mission in Sudan (AMIS) has had to deal with unprecedented challenges to the implementation of peace in Darfur, largely as a result of the lack of a binding ceasefire, the weakness of the AMIS mandate, difficulties associated with force generation and insufficient logistical and other support and assistance. Thus while the AMIS deployment was aiming at the restoration of a secure situation throughout Darfur, underpinned by a political settlement and allowing a safe environment for the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, the mandate and mission tasks came to focus more on ‘soft’ security tasks, such as liaison, monitoring, verification and protection.

Given that there was no political settlement and no peace to keep, the small AMIS force (7,000 personnel) could do little to stop violence in Darfur. Its presence nonetheless made some contribution to the stabilization of the security and humanitarian situation in parts of Darfur. AMIS saved countless lives; it helped accumulate evidence through monitoring human rights abuses; and it helped to disseminate knowledge of the conflict through escorting and protecting numerous research teams, diplomatic and humanitarian missions in Darfur.

The AU has also been involved in efforts at making peace in Darfur. Jointly with the UN as well as countries like the USA and the UK, it played a role in the Abuja process that led to a Darfur Peace Agreement (2006) which, however, was only signed by one rebel movement (SLA/Minnawi) and the Sudan Government. Since then, a joint UN/AU peace mission has unsuccessfully tried to facilitate peace in Darfur. During this period, the Darfur crisis has also become increasingly complex, being enmeshed with developments in Chad and with a growing number of rebel movements emerging. The European Union (EU) has deployed peacekeeping troops in Chad, ostensibly to prevent a ‘Darfurization’ of Chad but with possible implications for the survival of the regime in Chad as well. Such developments suggest the importance of a regional perspective on this and other conflicts on the African continent and an enhanced role for the AU (and possibly the RECs) in cooperation with the UN and other actors although this has not yet fully happened.

While the Government of Sudan would not allow any other organization than the AU to deploy armed peacekeepers in Darfur, the scale and brutality of the crisis caused several members of the UN Security Council to insist on the transfer of the peacekeeping mandate to a hybrid AU/UN operation in Darfur (UNAMID). In 2007, the Khartoum government, subject to considerable international pressure, accepted the formation of a hybrid force that is still being formed and expected to count altogether 27,000 peacekeepers by 2009. However, there seems to be no prospect for an early political settlement and the hybrid force will have a difficult time even just protecting civilians in an area as large as France. Also, the mandate of UNAMID does not allow for the kind of ‘coercive protection’ that may be needed to address the security and humanitarian situation in Darfur.

External support and Norway’s role

Foreign donor agencies play a major role in funding the AU, regional organisations and their activities. Member countries provide a small but increasing share of the operating costs of the Secretariat while the operating costs of AU’s peacekeeping missions are heavily dependent on external support. The European Union’s African Peace Support Facility is a major source of funding in this area.

Generally, both the AU and the regional organisations have problems in absorbing the amount of external funding provided, especially in the field of peace and governance. This in turn, is a reflection of their weak capacity. The UN Secretary General, in his 2005 report, In Larger Freedom, called on the donors to provide a 10-year capacity-building plan for the AU. Several OECD DAC donors are providing such support (with the EU as the biggest provider) but also other countries – on a more modest scale -  provide some support (most notably China which provides a new conference centre/HQ for the AU).

While external support is both important and crucial, the familiar challenges are also strongly evident. There is insufficient focus on both alignment with AU priorities and poor harmonisation of support provided by various agencies. Notably the donor agencies struggle to ensure alignment and co-ordination between what they support at pan-African/regional level and what they support at the country level, and between support to the AU and support to the RECs. The external support is also often based on unrealistic expectations about achievements in the short run and the promised funding are not always delivered. [3]

How can a small donor country like Norway provide support to peace, security and development in Africa? Norway has developed a platform or guidelines for its Africa policy which provides a good basis for assistance. A number of efforts can be made in improving the support and in making it more effective.

First, we suggest that Norway seeks to improve alignment or coherence between Norwegian support provided through the UN system, through the AU and African regional institutions, and through country support programmes. The Norwegian support still suffers from fragmentation and lack of alignment between these three levels. Support provided through the UN should also focus more on how the UN system can provide support to the AU and African regional institutions. Norway is also encouraged to put more efforts into ensuring that its country support (to partner countries) is better aligned with regional support.

The bulk of Norwegian support to conflict management, peace building and democratisation will still have to be provided through various country programmes. Regional support in these areas is required and justified as additional and supplementary efforts. Regional support is important because certain development challenges require regional responses and co-operation between two or more countries. Regional co-operation is also important to help ensure that small countries are better protected and are given a voice; to facilitate support from African countries with stronger resources to countries with small resources; and to facilitate mutual learning and development of common approaches between countries.

Second, it is important that Norwegian resources are focused and concentrated in order to maximise impact. Norwegian support should be concentrated in niche areas where Norway may have skills and certain comparative advantages. This may include continued emphasis on strengthening the role of civil society and the police in peace support missions, on regulations of small arms, or on support to monitoring and research on regional developments. At the same time it will be important for Norway not just to focus on channelling support to or through NGOs, but also to place more emphasis on helping to ensuring that the state and regional public bodies take ownership and responsibility for implementation. 

Regarding the AU Secretariat in Addis Ababa, it is recommended that Norway concentrate much of its support to (a) the area of peace, security and conflict prevention and (b) capacity and competence building. While high hopes are invested in that the AU will become an agent to intervene when necessary in the affairs of its member states to stop war crimes, genocide and serious conflict, the challenge remains to assemble the capabilities for the implementation and enforcement potential of these provisions. Rather than seeing the civilian protection activities that the AU has carried out in Darfur as a failure, it should be seen as a step towards creating a more human centred conflict management framework. Such efforts deserve continued, long-term support as does the capacity building process that will be necessary for more successful implementation.
Third, regional powers in Africa play a crucial role in this process. The current restructuring and shaping of AU institutions, for example, is in large part due to joint diplomatic efforts by Nigeria and South Africa. Norway has emphasised its desire to enter into a strategic partnership with South Africa, including trilateral co-operation in third countries in Africa and in relation to regional institutions. South Africa has skills, resources and political commitments, but experience so far also underlines that more efforts should be placed on ensuring ownership by third parties and that such trilateral co-operation must be based on contributions from all parties.

Generally, political dialogue with leaders of African countries and institutions is important. While access may sometimes be difficult for a small country like Norway, it will be important that co-operation with the other Nordic countries is maintained as a platform for such dialogue. In the same vein, Norway – as a small donor - should seek to harmonise its support with support provided by other donor countries. Where appropriate Norway may also offer to take the role as lead donor (as they are doing in some of their partner countries in relation to governance issues, or in energy in relation to SADC).

Finally, it is important that Norway has a long-term commitment when they provide support in this area. This will also have to include efforts to ensure that Norwegian competence is maintained and also that Norway is prepared, in the case of peace support missions, to offer military personnel for participation in UN operations. Furthermore, Norway’s role as an aid donor has facilitated Norway’s ability to play a role in peacebuilding and democratisation. It is important that the quality of Norwegian aid – including long term bilateral assistance to partner countries - is maintained.


[1] The homepages of the AU, the RECs and other regional institutions increasingly provide updated information and documents on the policies, programmes and initiatives. A good scholarly assessment is provided in a  recent collection of articles by African academics – J. Akokpari et al. (eds.); The African Union and its Institutions, Johannesburg and Cape Town,  Fanele and Centre for Conflict Resolution 2008. 

[2] See also G. Cawthra, ”Comparative Perspectives on Regional Security Co-operation among Developing Countries”, pp. 23-44 in G. Cawthra et al. (eds.), Security and Democracy in Southern Africa, Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand Press 2007.

[3] See more about this in a case study of external support and the status of harmonisation and alignment in the case of one of the RECs – SADC, Elling N. Tjønneland, From aid effectiveness to poverty reduction. Is foreign donor support to SADC improving? Gaborone: Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis 2008 (available from

Sist oppdatert: 22.10.2008
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